1,132 views • posted 11/10/2021 • updated 09/15/2023
The Wintergreen Gorge Trail in Erie, Pennsylvania used Recreational Trails Program funds for improvements including accessible parking, improved signage, and improved trail infrastructure.
Wintergreen Gorge, a 3,980-feet long, 250-feet deep natural wonder, was carved from shale and sandstone by Fourmile Creek during the end of the Ice Age more than 11,000 years ago. Characteristics include very steep and highly erodible slopes, pockets of wetlands, important bird habitat, and is home to unique and threatened plant communities. Most of the Gorge is on property owned by Penn State University that is open to the public and contains many miles of existing user created trails developed by visitors as well as the main shared use path. However, the existing shared use path and desire line trails do not consider environmental issues or sustainable trail practices. In addition, existing parking backed out onto a dangerous section of Cooper Road.
The Phase 1 project included design and construction of a new trail head at Cooper Road with accessible parking, green storm water infrastructure, native low maintenance meadow planting, 800 feet of Fourmile Creek Trail including a boardwalk, the 1,300 foot long Creekside Trail loop, benches, signage, and a dry stream bed to help reduce erosion. The purpose of the project was to increase safety for trail head parking, redesign the existing main trail to be more sustainable, eliminate by providing accessible parking and trails.
The ten-foot-wide Fourmile Creek Trail starts at the bottom of the Gorge a half a mile from Erie, Pennsylvania and ends at the top of the Gorge near the main part of campus. The slightly over one-mile trail provides access to the unique geologic and natural features of the Gorge. Creekside Trail is a 6-foot-wide accessible loop trail that provides closer access to Fourmile Creek.
The trails at Wintergreen Gorge offer recreational access to unique natural features for families, students, faculty, retirees, and people of all abilities. Accessible parking, seating, trail loops, and board walks allow families with strollers, bicyclists, hikers, dog walkers, and those that use wheel chairs to experience the trails. The trails provide spectacular views of the gorge and allow access for fishing. The proximity to the Bayfront Bikeway, campus, and the Erie bus system allows City residents without a car as well as students and Township residents to access the Gorge trails.
Accessible nature trails and boardwalks allow visitors to access unique natural features including wetlands, rare and threatened plants, important bird habitat, streams, and geological rock formations in this designated Natural Heritage Area. Interpretive signs educate visitors about the powerful properties of water including Gorge formation, storm water impacts, and watershed information. Trail signage provides visitors with trail accessibility information. Because the trail system is located on the Penn State Behrend Campus, the trails are used to access natural areas for class study.
Many sustainable design features were included in the project. A special aggregate mix was used for the trails to reduce erosion and substantially lower the site’s carbon footprint compared with asphalt paving. Extra care was taken to protect all wetlands and preserve as many trees as possible. Extremely durable, carbon neutral bamboo boardwalks protect wetlands and natural drainage ways while allowing visitors to experience their unique characteristics. Rain gardens capture storm water from on and off site. Large stone blocks were reused as benches. User created trails through sensitive natural areas were closed and reseeded. Meadows and low mow seeding contribute to low maintenance. A dry stream bed reduces erosion and slows runoff that drops from downspouts from a bridge that spans the gorge.
Penn State facilities staff maintains the trails and trail head at Wintergreen Gorge using their own equipment. The Recreational Trails Program has contributed funding for the next phase of the project where minor changes will be made to make the project even more sustainable and maintainable. Federal, state, local, and private funding was used for the project. Funding not only came from the Recreational Trails Program through the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources ($186,500), but also the Department of Community and Economic Development, Erie County Planning Department, and Penn State University for a total project budget of $689,000. Harborcreek Township, Greater Erie Regional Trails, and Wintergreen Gorge Cemetery have also supported the project in a non-monetary way.